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Climbing My Grandfather: Love and Relationships Analysis

Climbing My Grandfather was written by Andrew Waterhouse and published in 2000. He was an English poet who was born in 1958. He took his own life in 2001, a year after this poem was published.

Poem Summary

The narrator imagines he is a mountaineer. Instead of a mountain, he scales his grandfather’s body. He studies his grandfather’s shoes, trousers, shirt and belt. Then, he observes his splintered nails, the skin on his finger and the scar on his arm. He reaches his grandfather’s shoulder and pulls on the loose skin of his neck. He studies his smiling mouth, brown eyes, wrinkled forehead and thick hair. Finally, he reaches the top of his grandfather’s head. He observes the clouds and birds, feeling the pulse from his grandfather’s heart.

The poem’s key message:

The poem highlights the intimate bond between the boy and his grandfather. The boy wants to discover everything he can about his grandfather.

Language

The poem uses the extended metaphor of climbing. There is a semantic field of climbing with “rope”, “weave”, “grip”, “traverse”, “ridge” and “summit”. The climbing metaphor could symbolise the narrator exploring his memories of his grandfather and remembering how comforting it felt to be in his presence. This is demonstrated in the last line where the narrator enjoys his grandfather’s “heat” and the “slow pulse of his good heart”.

A semantic field of discovery and exploration is used. We see the narrator “change direction”, “discover” his grandfather’s scar and “stare into his brown eyes”. This shows the narrator wanting to learn as much about his grandfather as possible.

Oxymorons, which are combinations of contradictory words, are used to capture the childlike view that the narrator has of his grandfather. The journey is described as an “easy scramble”, while the grandfather’s finger is “like warm ice”. He could be saying that his grandfather’s hand was cold (which can happen to older people when their blood doesn’t circulate their body effectively), but he was very warm in personality.

Structure

  • The poem follows the narrator’s journey from the base of his grandfather’s body to the top of it.

Form

  • The poem is written in free verse (no regular rhythm or rhyme) and all in one stanza. This reflects the unpredictable and potentially dangerous journey that the narrator is taking.
  • Written in the first person, the poem presents the grandson’s perspective and his observations about his grandfather’s body. It is in the present tense, as if a child is experiencing this in the moment rather than reflecting on it in the past.

Themes

ThemeAnalysis
Family relationshipsThe poem explores the close relationship between the narrator and his grandfather. The extended metaphor could represent his memories of being with his grandfather and how comforting this was.

He remembers specific details of his grandfather’s clothes and physical appearance, such as his “old brogues, dusty and cracked” and his “earth-stained hand”. The vividness of these memories shows how important they are to him.  
Strong bondsHe feels a sense of trust for his grandfather, as shown by his choice to climb “without a rope or net”. As he gets to the dangerous part of the climb, the narrator is reassured by a “smiling mouth” that gives him the confidence to go on. The poem ends with him remembering his “good heart”, showing that his grandfather’s kindness has left the deepest imprint on his memory.
Getting olderThere are descriptions of his grandfather’s ageing body. There is the “slow pulse”, the “wrinkles well-spaced” on his forehead, the “soft and white” hair and the “loose skin on his neck”. The grandfather has lived a long time and this makes the narrator more intrigued to discover what he can about him. He encounters “the glassy ridge of a scar”, carefully placing his feet on “the old stitches” as he continues his exploratory journey.

He also explores his grandfather’s nails, which have become “splintered”. However, rather than seeing this as an unpleasant physical trait, he views it positively as giving him “good purchase” for his climb. We could interpret this as meaning that this detail gives him a strong memory of his grandfather, so he is pleased to have remembered it.

Key Quotes to Learn

QuoteWhy is it important?
“I decide to do it free, without a rope or net”This marks the beginning of his climb. He shows his trust in his grandfather by doing it without safety precautions. The climb could be seen as a metaphor for exploring his memories of his grandfather.
“the skin of his finger is smooth and thick like warm ice”This uses an oxymoron, providing a child-like description. It could mean that his hand was physically cold, but that he was warm in personality.
“knowing the slow pulse of his good heart”The “slow pulse” reminds us that his grandfather is getting older. Ending the poem by remembering his “good heart” shows that the grandfather’s kindness is what he remembers most clearly.

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